Brandon (Michael Fassbender) would seem to have it all- good looks, a sweet bachelor pad in Manhattan, and a solid career. But you can tell from the first frame that this ain’t about wish-fulfillment. On the contrary, this is a near-great movie for the same reason that Entourage and Californication are a joke.
Admittedly, if those shows could be accused of peddling unrealistic fantasies of the excesses of the successful single guy, Shame might well be accused of moving a tad too far in the opposite direction. The film is downright obstinate in pursuing its dark vision, excessively so in the case of one final twist that detracts from an otherwise brilliant and disturbing study of modern sex addiction.
Even with that flaw, this remains a powerful movie experience that more often than not bears a shocking ring of truth. Steve McQueen’s direction is stylish without being overstated, establishing and maintaining a consistently eerie tone. His vision of New York, with its darkened streets, gray skies, and sleek interiors is matched every step of the way by a powerhouse performance from Fassbender, who fornicates his way through the city like an L-train moving from chilliness to the far reaches of despair. Fassbender and co-star Carey Mulligan, as his emotional ragdoll of a sister, reverberate off of each other perfectly, expressing a common sense of personal horror from opposite ends of the psychological spectrum.
The film hints at some sort of childhood trauma at the root of Brandon’s affliction, but such an explanation hardly seems necessary in a hyper-sexualized society where getting it on is increasingly detached, or even at odds with, the pursuit of deeper human connection. It is the exploration of that cultural fact, much more so than Brandon’s personal background, that gives the film its real power and meaning.
While it might be tempting at first to compare Shame to a film like Leaving Las Vegas , with Fassbender using sex as opposed to drink as his chosen method of self-destruction, a more apt tonal comparison might be Carnal Knowledge, with its explosive depiction of the disaffected modern male chasing skirt right off the deep end.
Indeed, if Entourage and Californication are like the pop culture equivalent of Charlie Sheen- highly entertaining but ultimately whacked to the point of being unrecognizable- then Shame is like a humorless version of 70’s Jack Nicholson, slowly unraveling, losing his shit, backing off into dark corners that scare us precisely because we know they’re real.